Welsh Labour ‘tried to delay wet wipe ban’ over factory fears

An un-posed portrait of Mr Barclay in a suit and tie, walking in Downing Street
Steve Barclay, the Environment Secretary, is fast-tracking a plastic wet wipe ban - Hollie Adams/Reuters

The Labour-run administration in Wales tried to delay the Government’s announcement of a ban on wet wipes containing plastic, it has emerged.

Steve Barclay, the Environment Secretary, said at the weekend that legislation to bring in a UK-wide ban would be published in July, with new laws in the devolved nations following in the autumn.

However, Mr Barclay also revealed that the Welsh climate change minister had written to him last month to warn him the ban posed a threat to three companies in the north of Wales.

A Conservative source said: “This is yet more proof that Labour has no plan for tackling pollution in our precious waterways and will simply say anything to try to grab votes.

“While Keir Starmer and his shadow environment team sneer from the sidelines, this Conservative government is delivering a UK-wide ban on plastic wet wipes that pose such a threat to marine wildlife.”

Over time, wet wipes containing plastic break down into microplastics, which research shows can be harmful to human health and disrupt ecosystems. A recent survey found an average of 20 wet wipes per 100 metres of beach across the UK.

Once in the water, wet wipes containing plastic can accumulate biological and chemical pollutants, increasing the risk of harm to the animals and humans who encounter them.

They are also a litter scourge, blighting Britain’s beaches and contributing to sewer blockages known as “fatbergs”, when flushed down the lavatory.

A discharge outlet oozing waste into a river in Somerset
Wet wipes containing plastic cause blockages in sewers - Jon Mills/SWNS

Julie James, the Welsh climate change minister, wrote to Mr Barclay on March 4 to express her concern that he was planning to press ahead with publishing his bill weeks before Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

She asked him to fund any extra costs that Welsh industry would face from the new legislation being brought in too early.

“You will be aware of three large wet wipes manufacturing companies in north Wales which supply businesses throughout the UK and beyond,” she said. “These are key employers in the area.

“I want to move at pace to reduce use of unnecessary plastic. However, we must jointly consider any adverse impacts on affected businesses, of which we have both been made aware, and the subsequent economic harm which could befall local communities.

“Industry has indicated it would need at least 24 to 36 months following the introduction of any legislation to undertake the necessary transition.”

She added: “I note that neither the economic consequences in Wales nor the international implications are reflected in Defra’s economic assessment published as an annex to the UK-Consultation...

“I understand the need for urgent action in this space, but departure from these established principles has posed very real risks to jobs and the wider north Wales economy with knock-on consequences for international trade.

“Given your unilateral decisions will have important effects across the UK, I would like your agreement to funding any additional costs to businesses resulting from insufficient transition time and an England-only approach.”

A portrait of Julie James
Julie James, Labour's climate change minister in Wales

At the weekend, Mr Barclay pledged to fast-track legislation through Parliament that will see the plastic wet wipes taken off shop shelves for good.

Ministers plan to table the new law in England before the end of July, with similar legislation to be introduced in the rest of the UK by the autumn.

Shops will be given an 18-month grace period to phase out the sale of plastic wipes, meaning the ban will not come into force until mid-2026.

Mr Barclay said: “I have been clear that a step change is needed to protect our waterways from pollution.

“The ban builds on a raft of actions already taken to protect our waterways and hold water companies accountable, including accelerating investment, putting water company fines back into the environment and quadrupling the number of inspections of water company sites.”

A race against time

The Environment Secretary now faces a race against time to get the legislation through Parliament before an expected autumn election.

Major retailers including Boots, Aldi and Tesco have already removed plastic wet wipes from their stores, with other large shops now expected to follow suit.

The ban is the latest in a series of new laws to phase out single-use plastics, which also include drinking straws and plastic cutlery.

But unlike previous measures, it will not outlaw the production of wet wipes which include plastic, only their sale in shops based in the UK.

This means the move does not go far enough, said Labour. The Opposition said it would introduce “a full ban on the sale, supply and manufacture of plastic wet wipes”.

Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, said: “Plastic wet wipes clog up our sewers, kill wildlife and lead to sewage backing up into people’s homes.

“The Conservatives have broken their promises to act and are too weak to ban them outright.”